Recently, the New York Times published an article titled “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” in which author Mandy Len Catron describes a recipe for fostering love between two people. The procedure worked like this: Catron and a friend sat in a bar and asked each other 36 increasingly personal questions taken from a 1997 study on relationships. They then sat for exactly four minutes staring into each other’s eyes.
The 36 questions followed an arc of increasing intimacy; from the mundane “Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?” to the rather personal “If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?” The questions followed by the four minutes of staring into the gateway to the soul were purported to accelerate a closeness between partners normally only reserved for good friends. Did it work?
Well, Catron and her partner did fall in love.
Are these questions the Holy Grail for finding the love of your life? In a world where emails from Nigerian princes guarantee us riches and pills promise us thermodynamically impossible weight loss, we here at the PhDish hoped it wasn’t too good to be true. So we tested it out.
In a completely non-scientific study, we recruited two heterosexual, single men (Joss and Ridley) and two heterosexual, single women (Jolene and Rose) to follow the thirty-six-question protocol. (The participants’ names were changed for this article). Joss was paired with Jolene, and Ridley with Rose.
All partners were complete strangers to each other, and we kept it that way until they met for the first time. They weren’t told their partner’s names or what they look like, only what they would be wearing when they showed up to their pre-designated coffee shop. Each participant also answered a few questions from us before and after their experiences via email.
Prior to meeting up, all four hoped, at the very least, to have the opportunity to make a new friend. Joss wrote that with these questions, “there are so many opportunities to share things of genuine importance to either person, that [he couldn’t] help but imagine both people becoming closer in even this short amount of time.” They were all equally skeptical, however, about falling in love.
Question 1: Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
All four described the start to their interactions similarly – it was awkward. (Each participant was instructed to keep conversation limited prior to starting the questions). For Jolene, “there was a level of awkwardness that comes with meeting a stranger and then telling them about yourself.”
When asked prior to the interaction what they would consider a “worst case scenario,” our participants agreed that awkwardness was one of the more common fears, followed by boredom, wasted time, and actively being disliked by their partner. But they persevered. Rose “came to understand [her] partner pretty quickly because he was extremely open and honest.”
The questions get intimate quickly and with little warning. Question 5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else? Question 7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die? Question 10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be? Question 18. What is your most terrible memory?
Question 18 was the toughest and most emotionally revealing. All four participants felt the closest when their partner described the worst parts of their lives. Rose saw that it was “obvious that even talking about [Ridley’s worst memory] was still painful” for him. Joss himself was “genuinely upset about [Jolene’s] most terrible memory” making him more “invested in her feelings and goals and ...think of her as a full human being.”
By disclosing deeply personal information to each other, each participant was able to generate a relatively solid picture of what kind of person their partner is. In contrast, the original 1997 study showed that research participants unsurprisingly fail to develop much closeness when they are given thirty-six light questions: questions like “Did you have a class pet when you were in elementary school? Do you remember the pet’s name?” or “Do you subscribe to any magazines? Which ones? What have you subscribed to in the past?”
According to the “self-expansion model,” we form relationships to improve our chance of personal growth. And one way we form relationships is by self-disclosure. We feel more accepted and validated when we share our experiences with others who then have an appropriate emotional response. Socially acceptable (and flattering) self-disclosure in online dating has also been shown to lead to more successful outcomes (i.e. more dates and relationships).
However, despite the importance of self-disclosure in forming relationships, our participants’ closeness only went so far. Jolene and Rose described their partners as “acquaintances,” while Joss and Ridley went a step further to “somewhere between an acquaintance and a friend.” And three of them would happily accept a Facebook friend request from their partner, but not actively seek them out.
For Rose, though she “learned a lot about [her] partner, [she didn’t] feel that [she] got to know him very well.” A complaint shared by all our participants was, according to Ridley, that “the design of the experiment precluded [them] from following up on answers in which [they] were respectively interested in [their] partner’s responses. It tended to direct the conversation too strongly.” For example: question 30, “When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?” is immediately followed by “Tell your partner something that you like about them already.” This left their conversations feeling altogether unnatural despite the depth of content.
Even the final task of staring deeply into each other’s eyes for four whole minutes did not provide the spark towards a cinematic relationship. After the inevitable giggling, there may have been some moments of connectedness in which they shared in the awkward experience of doing such a weird task in public. But they most often just analyzed each other’s eyes and eyelashes, “not knowing what to do with [their] hands” while a “god awful Panic! At the Disco song” was playing in the background and an adjacent table was “having a conversation about orangutans.”
To many this may seem a bit like a let down. Our participants didn’t fall in love, and their relationships did not register too highly on the friend scale. But for us at the PhDish, we were actually quite pleased at how well our participants’ experiences matched up with the original experiment’s intentions. In that study, the authors said they created these questions to take strangers and reproducibly create “maximum felt closeness in a short period” and “not an actual ongoing relationship” in a laboratory setting.
These questions are “not a call to abandon the richness of real-world experience,” because they do not produce “loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects.” There are such glaring gaps in what you can learn about from someone even with 36 intimate questions spread out over 3 hours. Joss may have learned a string of deeply personal stories about Jolene, but “had little idea about her [...] taste in food, film, or music.”
However, before you lose all hope, we would like to remind you that the original experiment and our tests were performed with people with some inherent similarity, but were nevertheless complete strangers. Mandy Len Catron, the New York Times author who brought the questions to our attention, probably already knew the sort of music her partner liked. More importantly, she was certain she wanted to be in a relationship with him before asking him to do the questions with her.
Over 8 million people read Catron's essay and many of them wrote in with their own positive experiences. And our participants agree with this notion that the questions can be, according to Joss, “a springboard for spending more time together in the future.” So if you’ve had your eye on someone, but can’t figure out a way to get close to them, consider asking them to sit down over a beer to try these questions out.
If you're interested in how the 36 questions came about, you can read about it from one the authors, Dr. Elaine Aron, at the Huffington Post.
We would like to thank Joss, Jolene, Ridley, and Rose for agreeing to try out these questions and providing great feedback.